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BMW expands autonomous vehicle research

Sensing: BMW is preparing 40 7 Series test vehicles for on-road trials of autonomous vehicle technologies starting this year.

2000 engineers set to bring BMW autonomous vehicles to market by 2021

31 May 2017

BMW is ramping up its autonomous vehicle research and development workforce from 600 to more than 2000 in a centralised engineering and test centre near Munich as it works on bringing its first highly automated vehicle, the iNext, to market by 2021.

The German company says the centre will be responsible for everything from software to road testing, including building a fleet of 40 7 Series autonomous test vehicles this year for trials by BMW and its autonomous vehicle partners Intel and Mobileye.

The fleet will be split into three for parallel testing of technologies in Europe (by BMW), the United States (by Intel) and Israel (Mobileye).

As BMW announced in January, the iNext will be a Level 3 autonomous vehicle, meaning it will be capable of auto pilot driving in “segregated traffic” situations such as motorways or divided roads, but the driver will be required to be ready to take over in abnormal situations such as road works and in congested urban areas.

BMW says the iNext will be capable of Level 4 and 5 fully autonomous driving, but that would require technical solutions – many of them external such as suitable road laws and vehicle to infrastructure and vehicle to the cloud communications – that are still many years away.

For Level 3 driving, BMW says the vehicle will need a range of sensors – laser, radar, camera, ultrasonic and GPS – as well as high-definition maps to navigate its way through traffic.

The data from all these sensors will be pooled in a “data centre” in the boot of each car where the “driving strategy” is then computed.

While BMW says its aim is to have a Level 3 iNext ready for market by 2021, it is also working on higher levels of technology for fully autonomous vehicles.

The company says such driverless vehicles – with no steering wheel, throttle or brake pedal – will most likely start with low-speed urban travel.

It says road laws will be changed in some countries by this year to allow a vehicle to control itself for a certain period.

“Technology has advanced to the stage where we are now on the cusp of highly automated driving,” BMW said in a statement.

“This doesn’t just entail the further development of existing sensor systems, it also calls for a whole new understanding of safety, a stable cloud-based backend and highly dynamic HD (high definition) map information.

“This represents a big and extremely challenging technological leap forward. If a vehicle is to temporarily assume responsibility for controlling itself, then we need fail-operational systems, where a fault does not result in failure of the entire system.

“Brakes, steering and the electrical system that supplies them each require a double safeguard to ensure that the vehicle can continue to be driven in the event of a fault. The BMW Group together with its partners will complete these large-scale tasks by 2021.”

BMW has indicated it is wrestling with one of the most contentious issues surrounding autonomous driving – ethics.

An example would be whether a car is programmed to save the life of the driver at, say, the expense of a pedestrian in a critical situation.

The company says the question will remain hypothetical for now, as the first-fire generations of autonomous vehicles “will neither have the technical capability to make ethical decisions nor will they be allowed to by constitutional law”.

In most situations, the vehicle will simply brake at full force to avoid or minimise a collision, while also scanning for “a free channel” – space to swerve into if collision is unavoidable.

But BMW also revealed that such swerving manoeuvres will be restricted anyway, saying even at relatively low speeds of up to 50km/h in built-up areas, “the maximum distance the vehicle can swerve to one side in 0.5 to 1.5 metres”.

Along with partner Intel, BMW is one of three German car-makers to have bought into road mapping specialist Here, the others being Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen Group.

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